When we, the authors, first chatted about facial and body hair, it was to talk about the early deaths of our unibrows – may they rest in peace. We discovered that we were both very young when we had our mothers pluck our unibrows, that we both have fairly hairy arms, and that we both have a lot to say about the taboo topics of body and facial hair. Facial hair and body hair are rarely talked about openly or analytically, even though most people have quite a few feelings and experiences when it comes to these topics. Whether you avoid razors like the plague or shave every day, you probably have some feelings about your hair. We wanted to uncover some of these feelings that social norms try to tuck away.
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I think back to my first memories of my unibrow and moustache, which involve my mother and a pair of tweezers. Because my mom made sure no one would ever see it, I was never bullied in school for my facial hair. When I started fourth grade, this began to include leg and armpit hair, and she took me to my very first waxing session.
Sometimes not talking about it can be just as powerful as talking about it. When my mom didn’t mention my moustache and leg hair during my last visit, I could tell she was trying really hard not to. This was confirmed as we were saying goodbye at the airport, when she asked me, “Did you notice that I didn’t comment at all this time?” She had made it until the very last second, but still couldn’t stop herself from saying something. And when I think about it, I think I’d feel weird if she hadn’t said anything. It’s her own way of showing that she cares about me, even if I don’t follow her advice all the time. I find it strange that hair removal is never framed as a beauty issue. According to my mom it’s a hygiene issue, according to bosses it’s about professionalism.
Before moving to Vancouver from Tehran at nine, I’d never thought twice about my eyebrows. But “unibrow” was one of the first words I added to my small English vocabulary when I started school soon after. I immediately sensed that this word was dirty, something to be ashamed of. I cried for my mom to “fix” my eyebrows. She did, and waxed my legs too, though she said it was “too early.”
My facial and body hair introduced me to xenophobia, and it took me years to unlearn my hatred of it. I moved to Canada two years after George W. Bush had placed Iran in the axis of evil. I turned 11 the year the infinitely racist film 300 told my classmates all about Iranians. I didn’t wear shorts from fear of being called a Muslim monkey again. In seventh grade, when friends debated whether refusing to shave their legs was admirable feminist resistance, I suspected that few were wondering whether this choice would invite questions like “Is your dad a terrorist?”
Fast forward 12 years: when I went home for winter break this year, my mother was revolted by the hair on my legs. “Aren’t you embarrassed?” Oddly enough, now that I’m old enough for my body hair to worry her, it no longer disgusts me. I conceded to having the hair that I’ve learned to no longer hate – though not yet quite love – waxed off, but only because my mom’s horror didn’t seem quite worth resisting.
Drawn by : Dana Ryashy
Hair versus family
For a lot of people, their first experience of consciousness of their facial and body hair involved their parents. Families often embody, and thus entrench, normative conceptions of what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’ This gendered understanding of what kind of bodies are acceptable can come from the passing down of traditions, but can also apply extreme pressure to fit certain ideals.
When we asked Mariam* about her first memories tied to body hair, she recalled hating that her mom didn’t teach her how to shave like her friends’ moms. “Growing up around white people, they all had little hair like peach fuzz… I was the only one who had black hair that was visible. One time I was going to this party wearing a dress and I wanted to remove my leg hair but my mom advised me differently.” She said that at the time this frustrated her, “but now I understand what [my mom] was trying to do, and really appreciate it.”
Facial hair also created an intergenerational bond for Mariam. She explained, “My mom, me, and my grandma all have the same eyebrow shape, which in a weird way connects us somehow. This has been important to me especially since my grandma died.”
For others we interviewed, the removal of body hair created familial bonds through the practice of rituals. Dana explained that shaving was “handed down” to her through other women in her family. “I started growing hair in my armpits and someone said, ‘here’s a razor, this is how you do it…’ it was just something that you did as a woman, a ritual of womanhood.”
But family can also be a source of pressure when it comes to hair removal firsts. Nadine said that she didn’t really care about her “hairy legs” when she was 13, but her mom insisted that she get them waxed. “There might have been many tears involved,” Nadine admitted.
While hair removal was presented and perceived as a natural rite of passage for many women we interviewed, it was a source of conflict for Batu and his family. He talked about being the first boy to grow hair on his legs in school and secretly shaving with his dad’s razor to not feel different. “In a few weeks, when my hair reached the stage where shaving wasn’t doing any good anymore, my parents understood what was happening. They called me aside and questioned me. ‘Why are you doing this?’ ‘You should be proud to show your hair.’” He said that the patriarchal and “masculinity-centred lectures” that he received from his family informed how much his hair shaped his perception of himself and made it even harder to “make peace with” changes in his body.
Hair versus the patriarchy
Family is just one of many channels through which hair norms rooted in patriarchy are instilled. For some of the people we interviewed, the pressure to remove hair at a young age came from kids of the same age who had learned the rules of patriarchy early on and begun to act as enforcers. The patriarchal rules we are expected to follow take different forms and exert themselves with varying forcefulness on different identities, influenced by factors such as race, gender, and sexuality. However, no one is fully immune to an external pressure to conform. These norms tell us from an early age how much hair we can acceptably have on our bodies to be considered ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine.’
Rhiannon recalled playing in the forest when she was 12 and running into a group of girls from a neighbouring elementary school. “I hadn’t shaved my armpits all winter and the hair was quite long. They kept trying to get me to lift my arms up, actually to the point of grabbing my arms and forcing them above my head so they could laugh at my armpit hair,” Rhiannon said, adding that she “shaved very diligently after that.” For Kateryna, too, anxiety about shaving began when she was twelve and was incited by friends who thought she didn’t look “feminine enough.”
Not feeling “feminine enough” with body hair was something shared by almost all the women we spoke to. Nadine said that keeping her body “as hairless as possible” feels like an “obligation.” She only feels comfortable with her physical appearance when she is hairless, which she thinks has to do with growing up as a “stereotypically hairy Arab kid in a society where Eurocentric beauty standards are idealized.”
“I wish I could say I always wear my misstache proudly, that I roll my sleeves up to let the little hairs growing back in on my arm bask in the sun, that I never brush my bangs over my unibrow. There are those days where I’ll be […] laughing along with the comments meant to degrade me.”Arîn, a creator of the Middle Eastern Feminist Facebook page
According to Irene, hairlessness as a beauty standard stems from the ideal of “‘woman’ as this perfect, pure thing that doesn’t have any imperfections, because I guess you could see hair as an imperfection.”
Arîn, one of the two creators of the Middle Eastern Feminist Facebook page, also talked about the way in which norms are enforced on her body hair using various discourses in different public spaces. “When I was homeless, case managers read my progress and compliance with programs partly through my bodily presentation and how well groomed I appeared. When I was working food, it was about ‘hygiene.’ When I was working retail, the regulation of my body and facial hair was a matter of ‘showing customers respect.’ And when I landed an internship in policy research and communication, showing as little body and facial hair as possible was a matter of ‘professionalism,’” Arîn said.
Photographed by : Daniele Zedda | Edited by Sean Miyagi
Hair versus me
Despite our understandings of body and facial hair being inextricably intertwined with societal norms, the internalization of these norms can lead to a battle with our own bodies. Sometimes the voice in our own head judges us more loudly and harshly than the voices around us. Other times, it refutes the norms and tells us we don’t have to fight our bodies.
Nadia talked about how her perception of her own facial hair is often exaggerated. “I’ll be like, ‘oh my god my beard is growing,’ and other people will be like, ‘I don’t see anything,’ and there’s me sitting in the bathroom with a magnifying glass being like, ‘oh my god, I’m Gandalf.’” But despite finding her hair frustrating at times, Nadia doesn’t “want it gone forever.” She feels an attachment to it, explaining that “it kind of adds to who I am.”
Saima said that for her, “even the words ‘body hair’ are evocative of revulsion.” At the same time, she has recently stopped shaving and likes “being reminded” that her “body is organic.” She said, “It’s kind of fun waking up in the morning and being like, ‘wow, look at how much you’ve grown!’ [It’s] like seeing your body as a plant: it grows and has this immutable essence that expresses itself and it expands into space in a way that is wonderful and generative.”
Arîn echoed a similar feeling of ambivalence and internal conflict. “I wish I could say I always wear my misstache proudly, that I roll my sleeves up to let the little hairs growing back in on my arm bask in the sun, that I never brush my bangs over my unibrow. There are those days where I’ll be […] laughing along with the comments meant to degrade me – living my gender/ sex ‘failure’ to the fullest and feeling blissful; telling the world, ‘I know the rules but my body at its most natural state gives the rules the finger.’”
But on other days, Arîn feels like hiding, or feels caught and exposed in the outside world. She explained feeling “vulnerable to too many strangers who, at any moment, will out me as the perennial witch. And they do.”
For Batu, the reason for a similar sense of vulnerability was the overlap between the changes in his body during puberty and the beginning of his exploring his queer identity. He said, “Just as I was understanding this queer identity, my body began bravely exhibiting itself without asking me. My queer identity and my body’s exhibition of masculinity were in a constant conflict.” He said that it was only after starting university that he became more comfortable with his body and facial hair. “When I see my face or body in the mirror now, I know that there is no conflict anymore.”
Hair versus race
Aside from expectations of masculinity and femininity, the criteria for how acceptable a body is in terms of the amount of hair it grows also depends on racial prejudices. These expectations can be enforced by white people on people of colour, but can also be enforced within communities of colour. Too much or too little hair can lead to fetishization, public scrutiny, and even body policing by the literal police.
Despite feeling empowered when growing out her hair, Saima also emphasizes that not shaving as a racialized person is a radically different experience than not shaving as a white person. Conforming to body norms can be a survival mechanism for racialized people and refuting the norm is doubly threatening.
Saima talked about how, as an Indian woman, she gets treated differently when she doesn’t shave. “You know, my white feminist friends, they don’t shave and that’s a one-time choice for them: they go through a couple of weeks of their legs being kind of prickly, and then it’s done with. It’s not terribly visible, it’s not something that people comment on on a regular basis, you know, it looks like a fairy has sneezed on their legs.”
In contrast, Saima said, “When an Indian girl doesn’t shave, […] it’s something that’s a constant day-to-day decision that you have to make over and over again. […] Every day, you have to wake up and be like, you know what, I’m gonna wear shorts today, and I’m gonna get weird looks and I’m gonna get people wrinkling their nose at me, […] but it’s a decision that I’m making.”
This racialized evaluation of body and facial hair, however, is not limited to public spaces, but also manifests itself in intimate relations.
Ralph talked about his body hair being fetishized by people he has dated, like an ex-boyfriend who confessed to him that he was just “his type” for being hairy. He said, “Especially with the cis-gay dating/hookup scene in Montreal, you get a lot of white men who are delighted that ‘you’re very hairy, I like that,’ or something more inappropriate along those lines.”
The criteria for how acceptable a body is in terms of the amount of hair it grows also depends on racial prejudices… Too much or too little hair can lead to fetishization, public scrutiny, and even body policing by the literal police.
Batu also spoke to being caught off guard by encountering racialized conceptions of body hair in intimate settings. He talked about visiting close friends in the U.S. over winter break, noting how one of the biggest conversation topics throughout his visit revolved around his having grown a beard. He was told, “There are terrorists everywhere, and they will think you are one too,” followed up with, “I’m just thinking of your own safety.” Batu explained that his friends didn’t believe him when he told them that there was no ideology behind him growing his beard, and said, “It was really surprising for me to see that [white people] feel the need to have some sort of say over my body and my biology.”
Arîn pointed out that in addition to these racialized experiences of facial and body hair which fall within a white/non-white dichotomy, her people have also experienced racism, classism, and sexism from other brown people. She said, “The shame I experience through negative reactions to my body and facial hair is deeper than being brown alone. […] We have been in-house servants, peasants, underpaid workers, and scapegoats for other brown people, too.” Pointing to this additional layer of complexity, Arîn noted, “While I have undying respect for much-needed body-positive consciousness-raising through social media and other avenues, I need more than that alone to liberate my body from material processes of objectification. [Because] for every landlord, there is also an Arbab and a Sahib.”
Hair versus erasure
We found that the people we spoke with are comfortable to varying degrees when it comes to discussing hair openly, and even then, the taboo against the topic is often only lifted around close friends and family. This heavy silence around body and facial hair can heighten our internal conflicts, as we might feel alone in our struggle to reach an ideal that was imposed on us. But maybe, if we knew that other people are grappling with these norms too, we wouldn’t feel so hopeless when confronted with the judging stares we get in the mirror and on the street.
Speaking to how the topic does not “come up enough,” Irene mentioned that even at home, her father often comments on her and her mother’s hair removal as if it were a strange procedure. “So there’s a lot of this ‘you should be perfectly hairless, but we shouldn’t have to see you doing that’ or ‘you shouldn’t be talking about it.’”
Nadia, who feels comfortable talking about facial and body hair with anyone – “every person in integrated engineering just wants me to stop talking about my hair” – links this comfort to a sense of community and connection. “I’ve grown kind of fond of the fact that I’m a brown person and I have this hair, because I kind of own it [and] flaunt it,” she said, adding that talking about it can even be a bonding experience. “Being from Pakistan, it’s like, we start complaining about hair and that’s really how we bond, so […] it gives me a connection to my ‘brown brothers and sisters,’ as my mom would say.”
Saima pointed out that in contrast, in some situations, talking about it can feel like opening yourself up to attack. “I don’t think I would bring it up with someone who I knew would be like, ‘ew, gross, why would you do that.’ Because I don’t think I’m at a place where I’m secure enough [to defend] myself,” she explained.
Talking about what does and doesn’t grow on our body shouldn’t mean setting ourselves up for body shaming, policing, and merciless attacks, but there is no denying that most of the time, it does. As Saima put it, “There are many different ways to not conform to societal norms of beauty and any way that you don’t is a way of taking up space in other people’s consciousnesses; and making people think about you and your choices feels uncomfortable.”
The taboo against the topic is often only lifted around close friends and family. This heavy silence around body and facial hair can heighten our internal conflicts, as we might feel alone in our struggle to reach an ideal that was imposed on us.
Fighting against omnipresent ideals of what our bodies ‘should’ look like might seem like a lonely, losing battle, but maybe it can feel less so if our experiences with body and facial hair begin to claim some space. This space can take a million forms, because despite what the world would have us believe, body and facial hair can’t be boiled down to just “gross” – as we were told many times and in many ways in our interviews, it is much more complicated than that. As many ways as there are for people to hate or love or both love and hate their body and facial hair, there exists an equal multitude of ways to unveil, share, and exult in our hairiness.
*Name has been changed.